Dr. Elisabetta Teti recalls the nightmare weeks when the coronavirus first erupted in Italy
Teti, an infectious disease specialist at a hospital on the outskirts of Rome, already begins and ends her workday in darkness. AP Photographer Alessandra Tarantino followed the 39-year-old doctor one recent Saturday, from her home, through a 12-hour shift caring for patients needing sub-intensive care, and home again, exhausted.
The numbers the pandemic is producing at Vergata Polyclinic Hospital are numbing. Teti ticks them off: 28 admitted patients in two COVID-19 units, 18 of them wearing the medical helmets they need to keep breathing; 70 patients in the emergency room, where many are aided by simple oxygen masks; and 10, the the number of minutes it takes Teti to “dress up” in protective gear before she can begin her rounds.
The process she completes in a special, sanitized room involves carefully putting on a protective gown, two pairs of gloves taped around the wrists, two face masks, a hair cap and a visor. It takes even longer for the doctor to “undress,” since she applies sanitizing gel to her gloved hands every time she strips off one of her protective layers.
Teti arrives at the hospital as staff members deal with a patient who died during the night. Nurses roll the body away on a gurney. Teti turns her attention to the living.
Communication is challenging when patients wear oxygen helmets and Teti is covered by layers of protective gear. But her energy and warmth carry across the physical barriers. A male patient in his 60s smiles back. Teti exudes confidence and optimism as she passes from bed to bed.
But when she returns to the meeting room where doctors review patient charts, she acknowledges that trying to keep people with this dangerous virus alive exacts an emotional toll.
At first, most of the medical staff found excuses when the hospital first offered them group psychological support sessions, Teti says. Now, they realize they need the help, and the doctors have started counseling sessions as a team, she says.
Fear of inadvertently transmitting the virus colors Teti’s private life, too. During the first months of the pandemic, Teti and her husband, Stefano Capasso, wore masks at home. They refrained from even exchanging a kiss for months. She slept on the bed, Capasso on a couch.
On this Saturday, the doctor’s husband was still asleep when she slipped out of their apartment after a quick coffee at dawn. But as another heavy day draws to a close, they sit together at their dining table and share the late evening meal he prepared for them.
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